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Mary Cheh wants to break up DC's transportation agency

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has gotten too large and unwieldy to carry out all facets of its mission, says DC Councilmember Mary Cheh. Cheh has introduced a bill to reorganize transportation-related functions, create some new agencies, and abolish one.


Cheh's proposed reorganization. Image from Councilmember Cheh's office.

Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees DDOT, says there is precedent for slicing large agencies into smaller ones. Before 1998, all transportation-related functions were part of the Department of Public Works (DPW).

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was formed that year by splitting off driver and car licensing-related functions. Then, in 2002, DDOT was created. Finally, the District Department of the Environment split from DPW in 2006.

Cheh feels that it's time again for a too-large District agency to split into several. She has proposed a possible set of changes, below. But her staff emphasize that this isn't the only possible approach. More than the specifics, they want to put out one option for discussion, and foster a broad conversation about what to do.

The current version of the bill would make a few significant changes.

Centralize parking functions in one place. Today, three separate agencies handle parking issues. DDOT determines parking rules and posts signs. But officers who work for DPW are the ones who actually write tickets. If someone contests a ticket, it's the DMV that reviews the case.

This creates significant confusion when DDOT policymakers want to solve one problem, but information can get lost when trying to get DPW ticket-writers to focus in that area, and DMV hearing officers might interpret rules entirely differently. The bill would form a new agency, the Department of Parking Management, to handle all of these matters: policy, enforcement, and adjudication.

Establish a new transit authority. Cheh says that DDOT seems unable to really manage transit planning amid all of its other responsibilities, and groups like the Downtown BID have been complaining that DDOT does a poor job of with and coordinating with them about transit.

In many cities, the transit system is its own authority with a separate board. Cheh's bill would create such an authority for DC. That authority would supervise the Circulator and DC Streetcar, and be the point of contact between the District government and WMATA. It would also handle taxicab policy (see below) and "multimodal planning," but Cheh's proposal is not clear on what exactly that means.

To govern this authority, the mayor would appoint four members to a board, including a chair. The directors of DDOT and the Office of Planning, the DC Chief Financial Officer, and the councilmember who oversees transportation would each serve on the board or designate staff members to represent them.

The board would also include the head of DC Surface Transit, a private nonprofit made up of various local Business Improvement Districts, the convention authority Events DC. DC Surface Transit was involved in pushing to launch the original Circulator. The organization now helps market the Circulator, advises DDOT on operations and routes, and is advocating for the streetcar program.

Cheh's staff say that a transit authority, versus just an agency, could also be more transparent about transit planning than DDOT has been, by having a public board with open meetings. Furthermore, they say they have heard feedback that a separate authority could attract higher-caliber people than a mere government agency.

Abolish the Taxicab Commission. The DC Taxicab Commission has an unusual and, many say, dysfunctional structure. It has a board whose members the mayor appoints and the council confirms, but the chairman of the board also manages all of the agency's staff. Under Mayor Fenty, the Taxicab Commission chairman sometimes just ignored the board entirely. The agency has had problems with transparency and more.

Besides, does it make sense for one agency to only consider issues about taxis completely in a vacuum? Taxis are one of many transportation modes. People often choose between taxis, Metro, buses, driving, bicycling, and more. But having a separate agency make taxi policy means there's usually no overarching thought about how to help taxis fill a void other transportation modes leave, or vice versa.

Cheh's proposal would dissolve the Taxicab Commission. Instead, the District Transit Authority would make taxi policy and set taxi regulations, while the DMV would actually handle the day-to-day of registering, inspecting, and licensing the drivers and vehicles, just as it does for other drivers and vehicles now.

Move trees to DDOE. DDOT's Urban Forestry Administration handles street tree issues. Cheh's proposal would make this part of the District Department of the Environment, an agency that split off from DPW in 2006 to handle environmental protection, energy, and similar issues.

Cheh says there isn't a good reason for tree management to be part of DDOT. It's originally there because tree boxes are part of the roadway area, but there's also good sense in putting trees with the agency primarily focused on the District's environmental quality.

With these changes, DDOT would continue to have:

  • Its engineering arm, the Infrastructure Project Management Administration (IPMA) that builds and maintains roads, bridges, sidewalks, alleys, and other infrastructure;
  • The Traffic Operations Administration (TOA), which handles traffic lights, streetlights, crossing guards, and road safety;
  • The Public Space Regulation Administration (PSRA), with oversight over sidewalk cafés and other private uses in public space; and
  • Some or all of the Transportation Policy, Planning, and Sustainability Administration (PPSA) which devises long-term and short-term transportation plans, and works with communities to devise proposals to improve transportation. The pedestrian and bicycle programs are part of PPSA today, and PPSA is also handling the moveDC citywide transportation plan.
PPSA encompasses what Cheh probably means by "multimodal transportation planning." According to Cheh's transportation committee director, Drew Newman, they are considering a number options for transportation planning, including keeping it in DDOT, moving it to the new transit agency, or moving it to the Office of Planning.

Process

Cheh and her staff want to have a series of conversations on the various proposals, through some combination of public forums and a smaller working group. Based on that, hey might decide to change their recommendation, maybe reallocate which functions go to which agencies, or even decide that something shouldn't get split out and should stay where it is.

The forums will take place in June and July. Cheh hopes to then have final hearings in September, mark up the bill, and pass it at council sessions in late September and early October so that it can take effect by January. That would mean that the next mayor, whoever it is, would appoint new agency heads under this new system.

Is this a good idea?

What do you think about Cheh's plan? Tomorrow, I'll give some of my own thoughts.

Transit


Having pets doesn't mean having a car

If you don't have a car or don't want to drive all the time, taking care of a pet can seem cumbersome. But transporting a small or medium pet without a car is easier than it sounds. As the proud servant to an 18-pound dog, I've learned how to take him around DC without a car.


Photo by jasmined on Flickr.

Of course, you can walk or bike to your destination with your furry friend in tow. But dogs, cats, and other small animals are also permitted in most taxis, Metro trains and buses, and Zipcars. Most of them require that you take your pet in a secure carrier.

I have a soft-sided airline on-board carrier for my dog, since I can use the carrier for anything and it has a shoulder strap for easy carrying. A hard-sided carrier would be difficult to manage with anything but very small pets, but is also a great multi-tasking option for very small dogs, kitties, lizards, snakes, and the like. There are even wheeled carriers now, some of which have backpack-like straps, that would be ideal for medium-size dogs that may be hard to lift or transport otherwise.

Metro may have the simplest rules for pets. WMATA allows animals on all trains and buses so long as they are contained in a secure carrier, except service animals. I take my dog in his carrier on the bus or train with some regularity. Some passengers object that I'm not allowed to bring my dog on board, but bus drivers and station managers always know that he is welcome and let others know the rules.

Zipcar rules are also straightforward: pets are fine so long as they're in a secure carrier. I know it's tempting to ignore this rule and just load your pet up without a carrier, but those of us with allergies thank you for following the rules. I am very allergic to most dogs and all cats, and spending time in a car with lingering pet dander would be a miserable experience for me.

Despite my dog being low-allergy, I still crate him if I'm using Zipcar to take him to the groomer, vet, or somewhere else. There's an off-chance that someone who uses the car after me might be so sensitive to pet dander that even my dog would bother them, and that is the spirit of the rule. Zipcar is also a decent option for transporting larger pets. Given a large enough vehicle to accommodate an appropriate crate, larger dogs are free to cruise.

Taxis are a bit more complicated. Of course, service animals are still permitted, but taxi drivers can refuse to take non-service animals. Title 31, Section 801.9(b)(1), (2), and (4) of the DC Municipal Regulations require passengers to bring pets in a secure carrier, but also allow cab drivers to reject a non-service animal if they have a medical condition, such as allergies.

When requesting a taxi, I always let the dispatcher know I will have a dog in a carrier with me. I've only once had a problem with this, at National Airport, which is not subject to DC regulations. A driver told me that I'd have to put my dog in the trunk or take another cab, but rather than objecting, I opted to just take a different taxi. Thankfully, the staff member handling the taxi line was able to get me a taxi driver happy to transport my crated dog promptly.

In some situations, you may need to street hail a cab with your pet. In order to refuse you, the cab drive must have a placard in the taxi saying they have an exemption. I sometimes take my dog in Uber sedans, and I've always followed their advice and called the driver as soon as he accepts the fare and let him know I have a dog in a carrier. I've never had an Uber driver refuse service on that basis, though the drivers do sometimes ask how big he is, so you may encounter problems with larger dogs.

There are also several pet taxi services in DC that can take your pet (with or without you) to vet or groomer's appointments or wherever else they need to go. These are the best option for folks with larger animals, as the vehicles are designed for pets and often don't require a crate. They are more expensive than regular cabs, but likely cheaper than owning a car, particularly if you don't need to regularly transport your pet by vehicle or your pet is small enough to take on the Metro.

Managing a pet without a car does present some challenges, but DC has resources to take your pet by public transportation, carshare, or hired vehicles. With the right equipment and knowledge, you can take great care of your pet without driving everywhere.

Taxis


New taxi restrictions block fuel-efficient sedans

Earlier this week, the DC Taxicab Commission approved a new set of regulations for hired cars, placing new restrictions on size for vehicles in the fleet. As a result, many fuel-efficient hybrid cars, like the Toyota Prius, won't be allowed.


You can't use an app to ride this in DC. Photo by goldberg on Flickr.

These regulations seem to be a direct response to Uber, a service where people can order black cars and limos, and UberX, which uses smaller cars and is less expensive. After UberX launched, DCTC sought to update its rules for sedans, which previously had no size requirement. Now, cars must be at least 95 cubic feet in volume. When asked what sort of fuel-efficient vehicles qualify for the sedan fleet, DCTC released this statement (emphasis added):

The sedan definition would include more than 40 hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles, just among the EPA sedans, and not including any qualifying SUVs, nor any vehicles able to use alternative fuels . . .
Therefore, although it would not be appropriate to add in the Prius or other basic, economy cars here, it is also patently untrue that no hybrids could be operated as sedans under the new rules. Thus, the definitions, as written, directly serve the need to conserve fuel and protect the environment, without compromising other important interests at stake in the definitions.
Not appropriate to add in the Prius? The Commission argues that since they only ban the most well-known and most well-tested hybrid sedan on the road today that their standard is still pro-environment. That doesn't make any sense.

I'm a firm believer in global warming and think we should be doing all that we can as a society to cut down on pollution. Hybrid cars are one way people are reducing the amount of climate-changing emissions they create and taxis are no exception. From a public policy standpoint, I want to see us moving as much of our transportation system to clean, renewable, or at least hybrid options as possible.

So I reached out to the DC Taxicab Commission to learn what specific "hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles" could be licensed as sedans under the new rules and which would be banned. I emailed a Public Information Officer at DCTC and received with a sample list of vehicles that were 95 cubic feet or larger and were hybrids or ran on alternative fuels. The list included some vehicles that were just a touch up-market from the Prius, including the Bentley Flying Spur, Mercedes 350 and Jaguar XJ:


List from the DC Taxicab Commission.

Looking at this model list, what stands out is how expensive most of them are, as well as how fuel inefficient they are compared to the Prius.

According to FuelEconomy.gov, the 2013 Prius hybrid gets a combined 50 MPG. Meanwhile, some of DCTC's recommended vehicles do much worse. The 2014 Mercedes E350 gets 18 MPG combined on flex-fuel, the 2014 Ford Taurus gets 16 MPG combined on flex-fuel and the 2014 Bentley Flying Spur gets a Hummer H3-like 11 MPG combined on flex-fuel. This is a great example of how flex-fuel vehicles are not, in fact, fuel efficient.


Screen capture from the US Department of Energy.

To be fair, these are just examples cited by the DC Taxicab Commission's press staffer. There are certainly other hybrid vehicles out there that are larger than 95 cubic feet and therefore eligible to be part of the sedan fleet. They apparently didn't merit being used as examples of fuel efficiency.

Leaving aside the relative absurdity of these fuel inefficient and hyper-luxury vehicles as models for fuel-efficient transport in DC, the 95 cubic foot threshold for passenger volume is key, as most Toyota Prius models tap out at 94 cubic feet.

There's a debate to be had about how DC should regulate Uber. There's a totally different debate to be had about whether or not the DC Taxicab Commission is creating nonsensical, punitive regulations aimed to prevent Uber from using fuel-efficient vehicles as part of the DC sedan fleet.

Most importantly, as a city near the water facing the impact of catastrophic climate change, we shouldn't miss opportunities to reduce pollution through regulatory choices. Institutions like DCTC should be seeking to increase fuel efficiency in the sedan fleet. Allowing Priuses and other smaller hybrids to be part of it would do that, while Bentley Flying Spurs do quite the opposite.

Ethical.org, the campaigning arm of Ethical Electric (the progressive renewable energy supplier for whom I work), has set up a petition calling for the DC Taxicab Commission to allow hybrids like the Prius to be part of the sedan fleet. You can sign it here.

Taxis


"Zebra" could prevent U-turns on Pennsylvania Avenue

3 years after DC first installed bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, drivers making illegal U-turns continue to endanger cyclists. DC officials hope that a small and relatively unobtrusive physical barrier called the Zebra could prevent them, but will federal agencies go for it?


The Zebra (with yellow stripes DC's would not include). Photo from Zicla.

Drivers frequently make illegal U-turns across the lanes, which run down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, so much so that they've become the most common cause of bike crashes there. Bill Walsh, a local cyclist and an editor at the Washington Post, recently recorded a video of a taxi driver making a dangerous and illegal U-turn, and Justin Antos documented one illegal U-turn per minute one day.

Area cyclists want better enforcement, but writing more tickets may still not stop drivers from crossing the lanes. Next month, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will present a proposal to the US Commission of Fine Arts, a federal board which has power over design issues on and near federal property.

City and federal agencies have clashed over physical dividers for bike lanes

When DC first built the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes, they had a wide median and significant buffering spaces between the lane and motorized traffic. That design might have discouraged U-turns, but city officials removed it after pushback over losing one general travel lane in each direction.


The original Pennsylvania Avenue bike lanes. Photo by whiteknuckled on Flickr.

Last Thursday, Mayor Gray announced that DDOT will work with other agencies that have authority over Pennsylvania Avenue, including the CFA, National Park Service, Federal Highway Administration, and the National Capital Planning Commission to find a physical divider that can deter drivers from making U-turns and win approval.

The Metropolitan Police Department held an event on Friday where representatives from the Taxicab Commission and the Washington Area Bicycle Association handed out educational material informing drivers about illegal U-turns. Metropolitan Police Department Assistant Chief Lamar D. Greene said that a physical separator or some sort of barrier was the best way to solve the problem.

Soon after the installing the lanes, DDOT placed white stanchions near the corners, where the lanes often have no striped buffer area separating them from general traffic lanes, and where some drivers would mistake the lanes for left turn lanes.

CFA, however, "recommended against the installation of reflective plastic stanchions, commenting that these would be intrusive and incompatible elements in this iconic streetscape." Because Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the most heavily photographed and visited streets in the United States, the CFA is very sensitive to anything that might affect views of the Capitol.

DDOT still placed some stanchions at the corners, but did not use them midblock, where they could have stopped U-turns. The agency also removed them for the winter and is only now restoring them.


Rendering of Zebras on Pennsylvania Avenue from Zicla.

Next month, Jim Sebastian, Bicycle Program Coordinator for DDOT, will submit a proposal to the CFA for protective devices called the Zebra. Spanish company Zicla specifically designed them for cycle tracks and bike lanes. Zicla can make them black with reflecting strips so they blend into the pavement.

If CFA is open to the Zebras, DDOT will probably install them on a test block of Pennsylvania Avenue as a trial before putting them elsewhere, Sebastian said.

A barrier is the only way to make the lane safe

While it's great that the MPD is starting to enforce the bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue, it's not enough to prevent illegal U-turns and places an additional burden on an already-stretched police force. The best way to change behavior is with a physical barrier preventing drivers from entering the bike lanes.


Two drivers make illegal U-turns at the same time. Photo by jantos on Flickr.

Cyclists who have long complained that the Pennsylvania Avenue lanes are unsafe are starting to avoid them, undermining Mayor Gray's "A Vision for a Sustainable DC," which calls for a 25% cycling mode share by 2032. Making cyclists feel safe here should be a priority, though it doesn't have to conflict with the needs of drivers and the interests of CFA and other agencies.

After 3 years, there's some hope for a solution that can create a physical barrier and protect the street's aesthetics. Hopefully, the CFA and other federal agencies will be willing to allow some change to ensure cyclist and pedestrian safety.

The National Park Service is holding a public meeting tomorrow about Pennsylvania Avenue, and WABA is urging cyclists to attend and ask NPS to support a physical barrier.

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